Cannon & Mt. Lebanon UMCs
June 10, 2012
1 Samuel 8:4-20, 11:14-15 (NRSV)
8:4 Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah,
8:5 and said to him, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.”
8:6 But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the LORD,
8:7 and the LORD said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.
8:8 Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you.
8:9 Now then, listen to their voice; only–you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”
8:10 So Samuel reported all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking him for a king.
8:11 He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots;
8:12 and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots.
8:13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers.
8:14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers.
8:15 He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers.
8:16 He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work.
8:17 He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves.
8:18 And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the LORD will not answer you in that day.”
8:19 But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said “No! but we are determined to have a king over us,
8:20 so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.”
11:14 Samuel said to the people, “Come, let us go to Gilgal and there renew the kingship.”
11:15 So all the people went to Gilgal, and there they made Saul king before the LORD in Gilgal. There they sacrificed offerings of well-being before the LORD, and there Saul and all the Israelites rejoiced greatly.
This is an election year, a year when we take part in the great American tradition of choosing our leaders.
Leadership is important, and all of us certainly have a responsibility to familiarize ourselves with the people and the issues, so that when the time comes for us to do our duty we can make an informed choice. Not all of us are going to agree on those choices, and – don’t worry – I don’t intend to get into any hot potato political issues this morning.
But one issue that comes up, year after year, is the purpose of government. It’s part of what divides people on one side of the aisle from people on the other side.
Either party – either end of the political spectrum – has issues about which they say “Hey, government ought to be doing more to help this group,” or “Government ought to do more to protect us from such-and-such a threat to public morals, or public health, or public security.” And either party has areas where they say, “Government ought to keep its nose out of such-and-such,” or “People shouldn’t be able to force such-and-such down other people’s throats.”
We all agree that there are some things government is good at and some things government is bad at – we just disagree about what they are, and about what they should be. The program that I think is really important, you may think is wasteful or even part of some evil plot. And the program that I’m suspicious of, you may think needs a lot more support than it’s getting right now. That’s how we end up in different parties, supporting different candidates, because we disagree on what government ought to be doing.
In the time of Samuel, the people of Israel had been living for several generations without a government, under a remarkable and unique situation – God was their king. God was their leader. Yes, they had human leaders, and remarkable ones at that: Moses, Joshua, Gideon, Deborah, and Samuel, among others. But those leaders served at God’s pleasure, and were in close daily contact with God. They had no palaces or chariots. They served as spokespersons for God, not as the enforcers of their own agendas.
Samuel had been the people’s prophet, and therefore a sort of unofficial leader, for a number of years, but Samuel was getting old, and his children did not seem likely to follow in his footsteps. In fact, right before today’s passage the scripture tells us that Samuel’s sons were corrupt, that they took bribes and that they perverted justice.
So the people worried about the future. They wanted certainty. They wanted what the surrounding nations had; they wanted a king.
A lot of the mistakes we make as Christians have to do with the desire for certainty – or what we think is certainty – as opposed to the unknown. When we are forced to rely on God, we don’t always see the road ahead of us, and that scares us. We don’t like not knowing what’s ahead.
The people of Israel asked for a king. Samuel understood that what the people were asking for was, in some sense, an insult to God. Wanting a king – wanting something tanglible — displayed a lack of trust in God, who had cared for and protected the people for generations.
Samuel prayed about it, and God gave him the words to give to the people. God knew that the people had made up their minds, but he told Samuel to make sure the people knew what they were in for. He gave Samuel a list of the abuses that would happen under a king. A king required a palace, and a royal lifestyle – and that meant that people would be forced to build a palace, and to pay taxes to support that lifestyle. A king required an army, and that meant that a king might want to use that army for purposes that weren’t part of God’s plan.
Moses, and Joshua, and the judges, and Samuel had been spokesmen for God’s plan. A king, by contrast, would have his own plans.
Even today, we’re fascinated by royalty. Last Sunday, as I was getting ready to go to church, I was watching the live coverage on BBC America of Queen Elizabeth’s jubilee celebration. They were taking her out to a boat in the middle of the Thames river, where she would watch a flotilla of various boats pass by in her honor. Unfortunately, I had to leave for church before the real flotilla started, and by the time I got home it was all over and they were taking the queen back to her castle.
Even though the British royalty has long since lost any real power to govern, we’re still fascinated by them. Royal weddings and jubilees and ceremonies catch our attention. I love to watch the old Errol Flynn version of “The Adventures of Robin Hood.” But, as one film critic has pointed out, Robin Hood in that movie isn’t trying to bring independence to the people – he’s just trying to replace evil Prince John with good King Richard. In those romantic old stories, we fall in love with the idea of a wise and just ruler who can make all our decisions for us and keep us from harm.
But in real life, it doesn’t work out that way.
The historian and moralist Lord Acton said, in a letter in 1887, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”
Samuel would witness the crowning of Israel’s first two kings, Saul and David. Each would start out a humble servant of God, as also did the third king, David’s son Solomon. But yet each fell prey to various degrees of corruption.
Saul, in the 13th chapter of 1st Samuel, prepares to face a powerful Philistine army at a place called Gilgal. He’s instructed by Samuel to wait for God’s instructions. But Saul sees some of his army deserting, and he worries that more are going to follow them. Saul grows impatient, worries about the people revolting, and begins offering sacrifices to God – which was not the job of the king, but rather of the priests. Samuel tells Saul that because of his disobedience – which, of course, resulted from Saul’s lack of faith, and his own need for security – the kingship will be taken away from Saul’s family.
David was favored by God, and promised the royal lineage that was taken away from Saul. And David did many good things. But David, too, fell pray to the temptations of power, using it to kill a faithful soldier in order to have his wife, Bathsheba.
Solomon, too, begins as a faithful servant of God, and is permitted to build God’s temple, an honor that God denied to Solomon’s father David. But as Solomon’s fame and his wealth increase, he, too, becomes corrupted, allowing his many wives to turn him to idolatry.
Even these three, the greatest kings in Israel’s history, fell prey to sin and corruption. And even more so the kings that followed them, as Israel divided itself into two separate kingdoms.
The people of Samuel’s time were frightened, and they thought that a king would bring them security. But as God told Samuel, and as Samuel prophesied, the kingship would bring them many troubles, hardships and problems.
In our lives, both as individuals and as a society, we always run into trouble when we take the faith which we should be placing in God and place it in human beings or organizations.
We as Christians have a right and a responsibility to be good citizens, of course. We need to be informed, and speak our piece as individuals, and cast our votes when we get the chance. How we vote is shaped by what we believe, and our Christian faith will express itself in the issues we think are important.
Jesus said we should give Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give God what belongs to God. But too often, I think, we fixate on government and politics as the blame for our problems, or as the solution to our problems.
It’s easy, when you look around at the condition society has gotten into, to say it’s because of this court decision or that law or such-and-such a public official. We all play that sort of blame game – whether it’s Democrats blaming Republicans or Republicans blaming Democrats. It’s a convenient way to keep from looking in the mirror.
The truth of the matter is that if I were doing everything I could be doing to live a Christian life, to share the Gospel, to show Christ’s love and compassion for others, that would do a whole lot more to change society than any vote I’ll ever cast. If we as a church were doing everything we could do to live our lives in a Christian way, it wouldn’t matter which party or which candidate was in power. Society would be transformed from the bottom up.
The early church was formed, and grew, in a time when Caesar’s government was hostile to any belief system that didn’t lift up Caesar. And yet, this didn’t stop the disciples. They grew the church, not by changing the government, but by changing people’s hearts – by sharing the Gospel and introducing people to Jesus.
By contrast, some of the eras when the church and the government were too closely intertwined were eras of corruption and injustice. When church and government are too close together, it’s not good for either. That’s when you get the Spanish Inquisition, or the Salem witch trials, or the corruption that led Martin Luther to post his 95 theses to the church doors at Wittenberg.
Just as Samuel warned the people of Israel, when we put too much faith in human systems of government we discover their limitations.
But all too often, we want a king. We think if we could just pass a law, or get our guy into office, that would take care of things.
In Psalm 130, the Psalmist says this: “O Israel, hope in the LORD! For with the LORD there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem. It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities.”
But we want a king. And in our own personal lives, it’s even worse: we want to be the king. We want to be in control. We want to make our plans and know what’s coming down the road.
Don’t get me wrong; God wants us to plan ahead, to be responsible, to be good stewards. God wants us to seek practical solutions when they’re in front of us. But if we think our plans and preparations are sufficient, we’re fooling ourselves. God also reminds us from time to time that we can never really know what’s around the bend.
There’s an old Yiddish proverb: “Man plans, God laughs.”
We never know when our situation is going to change. Last weekend, I was part of the committee that organized the American Cancer Society Relay For Life. You think of how many lives have been upended by cancer – a disease which strikes men and women, young and old, without warning.
We live in an age of economic uncertainty as well. It used to be that at most companies, if you did a good job and were loyal to the company, the company would be loyal to you. Now, there’s no guarantee that anyone who has a job today will have that same job tomorrow. People find themselves having to change careers not just once, but sometimes several times over the course of their adult life.
When we’re in distress, when we’re in times of struggle or uncertainty, instead of trusting in God, we worry. I know that describes me. We spend so much time worrying that it distracts us from God – and sometimes, from practical solutions as well. It’s good to be concerned, but worry is something that goes beyond concern. Concern is constructive; worry is destructive. Worry takes us away from faith.
We can’t control our situation even in the best of times. And sometimes, God calls us to do things that seem counter to human logic – to step out in faith on some new enterprise or effort that doesn’t seem practical in human terms.
As Christians, we need to be in a state of reliance on God. We need to be focused on God first, and our own human efforts second. But, like the people of Samuel’s time, we want a king – we want something tangible, something impressive, something with a crown on it that we can see right in front of us. If only I could win the lottery, or inherit a million dollars from some mysterious relative I don’t even know about, all my problems would be over. If only I could get that job I want, my life would be so much better. We put our trust in human solutions when we need to trust in God first.
God may or may not give us the practical things we’re asking for, but regardless of God’s methods God will take care of us in the end. The tunnel may be dark, and we may not be able to see very far ahead, but if we can trust in God first, and our human resources second, we know who is leading the way and we know there’s light at the other end.
The people of Israel said, “Give us a king.” But what we should each say is “God, be our king.” Any other attitude is destined for failure.